What It's Really Like To Be A Woman At The Country's Most Prestigious Business School

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If you do an image search for “business school student," you get this guy: a handsome if bland white man in a suit, with a briefcase over one shoulder that's probably stuffed with applications for a job on Wall Street. He looks nice, kinda boring, like he could be named Steve.

If he’s what you imagine when you think of business school, you’re imagining wrong.

This spring, we spent a few days at one of the most elite MBA programs in the country, Harvard Business School, talking to the class of 2015. The women we found there were a diverse, driven, and expectation-defying bunch. We met a professional drummer, and a practicing Muslim who cut her teeth working on remote oil fields in Texas. We met women dreaming of the corner office, and women dreaming of anything but.

For all their differences, these scholars shared a belief in themselves, an almost infectious confidence about the world and their place in it.

Business school — Harvard's especially — has always had a reputation as a boys’ club. And it sounds like it’s earned: Edith Dorsen, who graduated HBS in 1985, summed up her experience as a woman there like this: “There were still urinals in the women’s bathroom, and a Marilyn Monroe poster hung in the classroom, if that helps you visualize it.”

It’s come along way in recent decades — women make up 41% of the current class, up from 25% a generation ago — and the school has been actively working to improve the culture for and success of its female students.

But, no matter how they fare in B-school, the women of the class of 2015 will be heading out onto an unequal playing field. Women like them, at the highest education levels, face the most pay discrimination and biggest wage gap of any group. "At top jobs, pay can go into the stratosphere, and women are still less likely to have those very top jobs," Ariane Hegewisch, a study director at IWPR, tells us. It's not something these women don't know about; each, in her own way, has a unique plan to tackle the gap, whether via statistic-defying hard work or forging a new path.

Ahead are highlights from those conversations with four women from HBS’ class of 2015. In their own words, they tell us about their two years at Harvard, what they learned (including lots of amazing getting-ahead advice), and how they’re planning to conquer their futures.

Read on for some serious wisdom.

Photography by Christopher Churchill. Interviews by Elizabeth Segran.

"Why Spend 70 Hours A Week Working If You Don't Have To?"

Photographed by Christopher Churchill.
Gina Pak
HBS class of 2015

I came to HBS already knowing what I enjoyed doing, but wondering if there’s not something I would enjoy doing more. With medical school or law school, you need the degrees to be a doctor or a lawyer. Business school is not necessarily like that. I’d love to say I came here with more of a plan than I did, but I’ve used it as a second phase of college — a time to be exploratory and reflective.

I wanted to be sure I was being conscious about the choices I make. Why was I choosing to spend my time working 70 hours a week if there was a way to work 50, for instance?

My mom has been pretty formative in my life. Before I headed to Stanford for college, she ask me what I wanted to be doing 10 years down the road. We’d talk about the hedgehog concept in Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great. There are three circles: What you’re good at, what you love to do, and what will allow you to make money. When you can find the intersection of those three things, then you’ve hit the jackpot.

Over the last few years, I’ve been exploring these things. I didn’t do the banking internships like most of my classmates in college. I did stuff that was more geared towards finding interesting experiences and working with different people. I worked with a lobbyist in D.C. and I worked in consulting for a while. I worked with a small private equity fund in San Francisco.

There are several things I’ve learned while I’ve been here. One is that things can seem very important in the moment, but any single decision can be undone. If a given job doesn’t work out, it’s not the end of the world — I can quit. It’s okay to have made decisions that might look like I’ve failed. But it’s been important for me to have the conviction that I have the ability to say "no" as much as I have the ability to say "yes."
For women of the HBS class of 2015, questions of gender have been on the agenda since we arrived. In our first week here, The New York Times published a big exposé about gender dynamics at HBS. I remember reading it without anyone around me because I wanted to form my own opinion. I’d already had my own experiences in male-heavy work environments prior to coming here, but I don’t particularly feel there is a huge boys' club here.

But, I do think we might see that more five to 10 years from now — what will happen if we decide to have families? And once we have those families, if we’re going to be in a two-income household where both people have very real ambitions for our professional lives, how do we make that work? How do we even have that conversation?
What has been helpful is the diversity of examples I’ve seen at HBS. I have a very good friend who is one of the brightest people I’ve met here, but he chose to put his career on hold while his girlfriend was going through the match process for medical school. I think it says something that I was shocked by that behavior, but I think it is incredible that there are examples like that here for me to reference. And then on the flip side, there was the exact kind of couple, but the woman was the one who was in business school and the man was the med student. I think it all comes back to being able to communicate without getting defensive and being open, honest, and direct.